Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Means and Motive

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Mar 26, 1998

Posted to HotWired 27 Mar 98

If crime fiction is anything to go by, criminals are identified by their having the means, motive and opportunity to commit the crime. A similar sort of analysis is applicable to the cases of child killing sprees now prevalent in the United States.

In particular, I want to focus on means and motive.

In the case of the killing sprees, the means is obviously the guns these children were able to get their hands on.

Meanwhile, the motive is less clear. On the one hand, it is generally, as Jon says, some real or imagined sleight. On the other hand, it may well also be informed by a media culture which promotes violence as an acceptable means of resolving an issue.

While the motive is of course of some concern, I would like to focus on the means. Because no matter what the motive, if the means are not available, the crime cannot be committed.

In the case of child mass-murderers, that boils down to this: if they can't get their paws on the guns, they can't go out and gun down their classmates and teachers. Or put another way, so that even an N.R.A. member will understand it: you can't shoot someone without a gun.

Now Keith Glass opines:

Jon quotes zero kids doing shooting sprees prior to 1994. I can attest that since that time, it's been HARDER to purchase a gun than prior to the election of Bill Clinton.
Now this is the sort of reasoning people should know better than to propose. The issue, especially with kids, is not whether it's harder to buy a gun. It is rather whether it is harder to get a gun legally or otherwise.

Moreover, one would suspect, if there are more guns laying aorund, it would in general be easier to get a gun. And since you can still get guns under the Clinton administration, it would also be reasonable to say that it is now easier to get a gun than it ever was, because the number of guns out there continues to grow.

At any rate, the kids don't seem to have any problem getting the guns.

Now we just know that kids - full of angst and anger - are going to sometimes find motives for a violent outburst. Not all of them, to be sure, but it only takes a few dozen to make a plague. So now we have both motive and means. Given the opportunity - a crowded schoolyard, perhaps - and we have a situation tailor-made for mass murder.

So how to solve it? Robert B. Tarburton weighs in with this brilliant observation...

These child criminals have no sense of the appropriate use of weapons. They have no common sense about what to get or when to use them. I think it's because of a lack of good examples AND the presence of bad examples that this happens.
Gee, Robert, really? So what you're saying is, "If only they knew the appropriate use of weapons, then they wouldn't launch mass killing sprees."

It is a bit of a stretch to say that these kids did not know they were behaving "inappropriately" when they offed their teachers. Indeed, I would say that the kids knew they were being very bad indeed.

They just didn't care.

In fact, taking them to the gun clubs and teaching them how to use the weapons is - in my mind - exactly the wrong thing to do. For now what we are doing is taking people we know to be unstable, arming them, and teaching them how to shoot straight. We're practically putting the means into their hot little hands.

Think by analogy.

You don't want the kid to set the house on fire, right? So what do you do? (a) keep the matches and lighters away from the kid, or (b) give the kid a lighter, teach him how to use it, and then tell him he should not set the house on fire.

Finally, for those who want to blame the media, the bad role models, and everything except the guns:

Here in Canada we get pretty well all the same media influences Americans do. Most Canadians can watch the major TV networks on cable, and of course, American films and other media spill over the border.

And we also have angst-ridden angry teenagers.

The only significant difference is that, in Canada, guns are heavily regulated, and it's darn near impossible for most kids to get their hands on one.

In Canada, we have not had a rash of children shooting up the schoolyard.

So let's look at the equation:

  • USA - access to guns - murderous rampages
  • Canada - no access - no murderous rampages
And we know there is a causal relation between guns and shootings; as stated above, you cannot shoot someone without a gun.

The conclusion is pretty clear.

So long as Americans insist on arming themselves to the teeth, they are going to have to live with the killing sprees. They will have to also live with a significant number of accidental shootings as well. This is as inevitable as the sun rising in the morning and setting in the evening.

I would think Americans would be doing everything they can to reduce the number of guns in their country. It is simply astonishing - and appalling - that a significant number of them resist this.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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